The Booker Prize is, in theory, the leading award for fiction in the English language by writers outside America. The novelist Tibor Fischer, short-listed in 1993, is a judge for this year’s award and, having read over 100 novels submitted by publishers as likely candidates, he was struck by a recurring theme:
”It was curious to see how the middle class — got clobbered: racist, xenophobic, child-killers or just generally evil. Any prostitute, beggar, asylum-seeker or non-Caucasian was likely to have a heart of gold. The conformity was such that I felt sometimes that only members of the Socialist Workers Party were allowed to publish novels.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So much American culture in the past 30 years has adopted the same tack, delighting in its own adolescent naughtiness and believing that we would be genuinely shocked to find the land of white picket-fences populated by normal — and normally imperfect — people.
This sort of thing riles me because I come from exactly the sort of English, middle-class background that the middle-class writers nominated for the Booker like to attack. My hometown is utterly, achingly respectable, reasonably affluent and largely populated by the elderly and professionals with families, although the demographic is changing slightly as those who can afford it move up from the nearest city and its environs. That in itself is indicative: people move to my hometown because they believe that it’s ‘nicer,’ that the schools are superior, that crime is lower and that overall quality of life is better. And they’re right. And that’s not because people like my parents are actively and ruthlessly grabbing what they can of the cake and allowing everyone else to go to hell or, as I overheard in Book Trader this week, that they are ‘moving’ the poor into separate areas of town. It’s because they are, to coin a phrase, good people working hard. Do I mean by that that they are better and working harder than other people? Maybe I do. They’re better and harder-working than I, for instance.
Communities don’t exist in a vacuum. People create them, and they take the form desired by those people. Only recently have I begun to appreciate my parents as people, people who construct that exact middle ground caricatured by “American Beauty.” The more I learn about my parents as real people, the more impressed I am. There are a couple of areas in which I’m keen not to resemble my parents: my mother’s overuse of the exclamation point, for instance, or my father’s habit of indicating when he turns corners and not when he changes lanes. But in general, I think my parents are impressive people, as people. For one thing, they’re relaxed enough not to mind the base ingratitude when their children make fun of them.
I’m just about old enough to apprehend what my parents may have been like at the same age. When she was 26, my mother had been four years married, an ideal for which I know I am nowhere near prepared. Knowing the characters of my parents, and knowing something about their past, I am beginning to dimly realize the extent to which they worked hard at their marriage, their careers, their role as parents and their lives generally. I begin to see how skillfully they walked the tightrope as parents; how they restrained themselves when it would have been so easy to be overbearing, to slip into castigation or emotional blackmail. How they sacrificed what would have been their own short-term ease and ignored their own impulses for an unprovable belief that it would simply be better if their children were brought up in a particular way, in a particular environment.
Sure, the white-fence culture has its faults. Good manners, which are an extension of courtesy, become petrified over time into an unquestioned method of social exclusion. But that doesn’t alter the fact that they have their place, as do the structures of this environment, which people like my parents know exist to provide security and some form of support against the very real possibility of slipping into lassitude and ennui. My parents weren’t trendily concerned with self-esteem, because they knew that the far greater gift was that of self-respect.
I don’t want to slide into the mire of mawkish sentimentality, but my parents really are to some extent my heroes: normal people who made the most of what they were. And they did this all for us — me, my brother and my sister — because they believed it was the right thing to do. My parents are the sort of people who populate the middle-class towns regarded with such contempt by prize-winning authors, and they don’t deserve it. Mine have arrived a little early for Parents’ Weekend, but I might as well get the ball rolling. If your parents are anything like mine, remember to thank them next weekend. And, for a moment at least, be impressed. Be very impressed.
Nick Baldock is a second-year graduate student in the History Department.